Her background lacked definition in poverty rating. Far from being born with a metal spoon let alone a silver one, it could not still be placed in the province of a wooden spoon. It was not bad enough to be the first child of poor, rural parents who encouraged poverty with numerous children. At age ten, her schooling became the last occupant in the family’s scale of preference, losing prominence to hawking, baby-sitting, commercial farming, and other varieties of child labour. It was not as if her parents showed remorse, or even felt it.
Yet she was brilliant, Jenifer. Not that her parents found any value in her brilliance – or perhaps they pretended not to. After all she was a girl-child, luckily pretty. Suitors would soon start peeping. Academic excellence meant nothing for her parents whose prolific child-bearing was an ‘accident’ rather than a design, of consoling poverty with a career in sex.
So when one fat woman came from Lagos to the village looking for child helps – or rather, child slaves – to assist in the running of her canteen, Jenifer’s parents felt lucky to have been approached. Madam promised to enrol her in secondary school, evening classes, an offer that did not please her parents who wanted money instead. But finally they accepted the arrangement, after all it could help brighten up her profile and attract richer suitors.
Madam’s first gesture was to rename her Jenifer. Her old Igbo name was too long – a summary of all the circumstances of her birth – and was not in any way trendy for urban Lagos.
Madam was not someone who would put her money into the upbringing of another woman’s child without having exacted enough servitude first. So two years rolled by before she reluctantly registered Jenifer for evening classes, and that, only because she had proved very useful and obedient as a work toy. Yet attendance for classes was erratic, depending largely on how much Jenifer had bribed Madam with laborious input for the day. A girl who loved her books, committed night reading sustained her brilliance, in spite of her limitations. But evening classes carried a lot of threats. No wonder the Lagos State Government put a stop to them.
One of such threats was that students came home late from school. Ordinarily that should not be a problem, but Mushin was not an address lacking in street violence and other crimes. Pretty Jenifer had grown luscious round tubers on her chest plus other bodily acquisitions of womanhood. There had been taunts and overtures from those street boys whenever she was on her way to school. Her rebuff was an insult to their bloated masculinity, so they hatched a plan to deprive her of her dignity, and thereby massage their own egos.
It worked for them, unfortunately. Jenifer was raped on her way from school one day, by three young men who waylaid her. There was no word to depict that violation of innocence, the crushing of a poor girl’s sense of worth in a world that did not care for her. She could not tell a Madam that was never close to her at all, whose relationship with her tottered between insult and command. She bore it all. From then she found no reason to go for classes anymore, and Madam was the happier for it. But there was a grave consequence.
Naïve Jenifer got pregnant. Madam screamed insults, neighbours gathered, some murmured surprise, that “so this prim-and-proper girl who had no one’s time in this compound actually had a boyfriend!” Shame. Agony. Jenifer was bundled back to her village to receive more insults from parents to whom she meant nothing but economic hope. She was called names, spat at, and abandoned to tend her pregnancy. Poverty had grown worse there, and a male sibling had become notoriously deviant, alternating stealing and violence. There was nothing to be happy for in life. She had hoped to become somebody and help put her family in proper shape. She was a disappointment.
That was why when she had her child, nobody rejoiced. Even she did not rejoice, knowing that the child was to be a perpetual reminder of a horrible experience. Life was hell placed on an early rehearsal.
But she clung to hope, to the belief in self, that she could still find her bearing. How that would happen she had no idea.
One day she came looking for her in the village, her friend and classmate. Back in school they had shared their stories, and found out how closely they lived as neighbours in that virtual territory called poverty.
Discussions. Tears. Assurances.
That was how Jenifer, a year after, went back to Lagos to live with her friend, in Ajegunle. Her friend worked as a cleaner in a bank, and soon helped her gain the same employment. Ambition. Jenifer was bent on being a graduate. Her brilliance was still tucked somewhere within her wobbling self. A GCE result soon proved that. Part-time study in the university followed and was capped with an excellent result.
Last week I met Jenifer in the bank where she now works as the head of an entire unit. More professional qualifications have been added. We have been good friends, but she never shared her story with me. My continuous compliments and insinuations that she must have had a rosy parentage to occupy such a post at twenty-six provoked her telling her ordeal, this story. She said she abandoned the child because she hated him, but later missed him a lot when things got better. “He’s now in a boarding school in Ogun State,” she said, happily.
This moment, I find in her story a thousand lessons in motivation, a thousand hopes for the girl-child, for womanhood. I find that the human spirit is powerful beyond imagination, that triumph is possible for those who are arrogant towards their limitations.